Barnes and Wales
By Mike Kroll
While comedian Stephen Colbert received most of the attention and all of the media coverage he was but one of four to be awarded honorary degrees by Knox College at Saturday's commencement. Shirley Barnes, retired American ambassador to the Republic of Madagascar and president of the Barnes Findley Foundation was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, one of the most unique phenomena of the Internet, was also awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. And finally, Diane Rosenberg, who stepped down after five years as chair of the Knox Board of Trustees, was genuinely surprised as she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree for her service to the college. Colbert was the only one of the four to speak during the proceedings and he gave a fabulous speech, but the significance of Barnes and Wales as honored guests should not be dismissed lightly.
I interviewed both Barnes and Wales Friday night. Both are bright and articulate and would have made fine speakers themselves. Of these accomplished guests, one would be hard pressed to rank their importance or impact on the world that students are now entering. Colbert is undoubtedly the best known and most public, but Barnes may well be considered for a Nobel Prize in the near future and Wales has introduced one of the most innovative Internet technologies and gave that technology away!
A former career diplomat, Barnes is spending much of her time today in a frustrating battle against human trafficking, particularly in southern Africa. Since 2003 she has focused on the estimated 800,000 to 900,000 people who are trafficked annually, mostly from poor countries in Africa, Asia or South America to wealthier nations such as those in the European Union and even the U.S. “The majority are young and female and they are commonly traded for sexual exploitation or child labor,” explained Barnes. “The chronic conditions of poverty, social and civil unrest and the traditional cultural preference for male children combine to make teenage girls the most commonly trafficked human commodity today.”
It is hard to see any clear distinction between what is now called “human trafficking” and the institution of slavery that tore America apart during the nineteenth century. Commerce in human beings is almost universally condemned worldwide, and some countries officially consider the activity a crime against humanity, yet Barnes says it remains a profitable and growing form of international trade, an underground economy seldom acknowledged. “When you have a clandestine trade operation with worldwide involvement it is really hard to accurately count the number of victims, but I am convinced most of these numbers are woefully low. There may be as many as 50,000 annually trafficked to the United States alone!”
Barnes sees her role in this fight as a balance between generating popular awareness of the problem and soliciting political involvement by the world's nations in combating the traffickers. “Most people are amazed to learn that few nations had laws specifically barring human trafficking until the last four or five years. Until recently traffickers themselves faced few legal repercussions while their victims were often treated as criminals and illegal immigrants.”
The Barnes Findley Foundation places a special emphasis on strategies to control the trafficking in African young women and children. “I first became truly aware of the scope of this problem while serving in Rome. An Italian diplomat approached me concerned over the huge number of African girls brought into Italy for sexual exploitation. Trafficking in humans is inhuman no matter where it occurs, but most of the attention has been focused on eastern Europe or southeast Asia while the plight of young African women seemed to garner little note.”
The human trafficking industry places an enormous value upon youth, and many of those traded are young women who are not only used in prostitution, pornography (particularly child porn), and unpaid domestic help; but also as mail-order brides and even nannies. “In many cases their value is as fleeting as their youth, and these victims are victimized yet again when they are frequently abandoned as young adults.”
And the secondary victims of human trafficking include all of us. “When you consider the social and economic conditions under which human trafficking prospers you can see that it is a ripe conduit for the spread of HIV aids and other diseases that are prevalent among the population being trafficked. It is a commonly held fiction the world over that the young are not infected or disease-free, and even less true as their exposure to the sex trade advances. The world community needs to unite in open opposition to this inhuman activity and traffickers must be subject to harsh prosecution for their crimes.”
“Obviously the administrators of this college didn't research my grades before offering me this honorary degree,” joked Wales. “This is a new experience for me and I am quite honored but surprised. Young people like these graduates are a big part of what makes Wikipedia the success it is. These students will be at the forefront of extending the Wiki concept into more and more areas.”
Wikipedia is currently the largest encyclopedia available on the Internet with over 3.8 million articles covering the gamut of topics and compiled from publicly contributed entries than can be edited by any user. It is available in dozens of languages, but English claims the largest number of entries at over 1.177 million and growing. The encyclopedia is but one example of the Wiki concept in use. It has been joined by a Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikinews, Wikiquote, Wikispecies, etc. Wales didn't invent the Wiki, but his work has helped create the Wiki phenomenon.
“The original concept was to create a freely accessible media for the transmission of all the world's knowledge that was built by the contributions and editing of its user community. My first idea for an Internet encyclopedia, Nupedia, began in 2001, but we worked so hard at building in all the editorial controls to ensure that only qualified people made contributions that we doomed the project. The key to Wikipedia's success is that it is almost completely open and governed, regulated if you will, by the user community itself.”
Wales created a non profit Wikimedia Foundation to operate Wikipedia and its non-profit offshoots. Despite its tremendous growth he reports that there are only four paid employees of the foundation, and that does not include himself because he is unpaid. The vast majority of the work is done by a large group of dedicated volunteers, and the entire endeavor is supported solely by contributions. The Wikimedia Foundation does not accept advertising, and Wales got it started with his own money earned as a very successful options trader on the Chicago Board of Trade. It cost roughly one million dollars to operate the Wikimedia Foundation in 2005, with constantly increasing costs of hardware and bandwidth accounting for most of the cost.
With the slogan, “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” Wikipedia was guaranteed to have detractors — notably the publishers of the old-line traditional encyclopedias and academics. Wales is a true adherent to the concept of publicly open free software like the many distributions of Linux and the increasingly popular Mozilla Firefox browser or OpenOffice. Wikipedia was merely the application of this model to a new task, according to Wales. “I'm a programmer at heart; admittedly a bad one but more or less a geek. I have totally adopted the GNU concept of free software, and everything we use or develop for Wikimedia is GNU licensed and freely available to anyone. I am proud of the fact that for most of our new users Wikipedia is their introduction to the GNU free software concept.”
Wikipedia's critics challenge the accuracy and quality of its content because anyone can contribute or edit any subject without any formal vetting or peer review. There is even a website dedicated to denouncing the misguided influence of Wikipedia (www.wikipedia-watch.org) maintained by one of Wales' most strident critics, Daniel Brandt. These critics fear that the very openness of Wikipedia permits users to add inaccurate information, either through innocent ignorance or with malicious intent. Wales acknowledges that bad information can get into Wikipedia but counters that the open community concept is self-correcting.
“One of the great things about Wikipedia is that there is no single author of any article. Anybody can post additions or changes at any time and that is why it has seen such phenomenally quick growth but also why misinformation is unlikely to persist for long. This is built by consensus, and the large number and wide base of contributors will result in a neutral stance on most issues and quick attention to most inaccuracies. There is no disputing that vandalism can and does occur, but I believe we maintain a high standard for editing content. As a virtually real-time reference source we are constantly expanding and updating entries. There is no timelier reference source available anywhere.”
Perhaps this real-time, constantly in flux nature of Wikipedia is one of its reasons for success in attracting Internet users. It is constantly ranked as one of the highest traffic sites on the web. “During the three-month period between December 1st and the end of February we almost tripled the amount of daily traffic to Wikipedia and there is no sign that such growth will slow down in the near future.” Unlike traditional reference sites, Wikipedia is constantly changing, and one of the givens on the Internet is that frequently updated content is key to attracting traffic. Also a strength of Wikipedia is that because it is driven by the knowledge and interests of its users the style and content of articles is anything but consistent. For instance, pick any two or three major cities, compare their Wikipedia entries, and take note of how differently each such entry is approached by its authors. However, the inverse is also true — lack of interest on some subjects restricts how comprehensive Wikipedia can be.
Wales remains a capitalist at heart and has recently launched a related but independent for–profit venture called Wikia.com that applies the Wiki concept to content that will feature advertising. “This new project still offers open access but has a much broader usage base. People can create their own Wikia community and we will host it for free. This is an opportunity for a Wiki approach to a personal website, and I am hoping that it might provoke the rebirth of true participatory politics during an election year like this. This is yet another demonstration of the unlimited utility of the Wiki concept, and I actually encourage competitors to use our technology.”